Tuesday, October 15, 2013

How to make beautiful sound - Richard Bonynge

Bonynge was remarkable not only in terms of imparting culture and style, but in how he got each singer to make his/her sound more beautiful, more personal, less forced. In different ways with all of the singers, he politely but persuasively made the point that too many singers in their careers sing too loud for too long, not only damaging their voices but making less than ideal sounds.

“Ladies and gentlemen, it takes courage and discipline to sing quietly and beautifully," he explained. "It is much harder than all the loud singing you hear every day. The voice is more beautiful when you control the volume and keep the purity of line. When you start with much less voice in an aria you can have a gradual crescendo to the end. Only make beautiful sounds in this music and never louder than beautiful. Never give your maximum—ever! Eighty percent is enough.”

He frequently encouraged the students to give their singing more gloss, velvet or cream. I later asked him to define gloss: “It is sound which floats on the air and has wonderful resonance with no pushing. You hear the basic sound of the voice.”

I am sure I was not the only person seated in the Peter Jay Sharp Theater at Juilliard who was thinking how Joan Sutherland performed the music the sopranos sang at the master class. Listen to her and think about how she imparted beauty and meaning to three fiendishly hard arias: In “Care compagne...come per me sereno” from Bellini’s La Sonnambula; “Caro nome” from Verdi’s Rigoletto and "Al dolce guidami” from Donizetti’s Anna Bolena.

On October 10, the day after the Juilliard/Solti Accademia classes, I had the wonderful opportunity to spend three hours with Bonynge for a wide-ranging conversation with a lot of focus on Verdi. When I sat down with him, I began by wishing him a happy 200th Giuseppe Verdi birthday. He said, “You know, today has another meaning for me as well. Joan died three years ago today.”

Clearly, Bonynge and Sutherland were very close and I reminded myself that they were artistic as well as personal partners. For me, when I knew them in the 1980s while I worked at the Met, they not only were performers who provided countless thrills but paragons of professionalism. Above all, they put the music first, never cut corners and always had fun. Audiences understood this and were able to share that feeling while reveling in what I now know was only eighty percent of the possible volume!

I asked him about the assertion that conductors tailor their playing according to who is singing. He replied “Tullio Serafin said to me, ‘My dear, the tempo is the tempo your singer can sing it at!’” We talked about singers he admired—Zinka Milanov, Kirsten Flagstad (“Wonderful bel canto singer”), Montserrat CaballĂ©, Ebe Stignani, Marilyn Horne, Alfredo Kraus, Mario del Monaco, the young Luciano Pavarotti. 

And then, unbidden by me, he said, "I think Carlo Bergonzi is the great Verdi singer of our day." He cited not only the beauty of the voice but the naturalness of the singing, without undue effects not found in the music. He said, “Verdi knew rhythms. He wrote music you could sing with, not against. He never unnecessarily doubled instruments in the orchestra if it did not serve the drama. This allowed singers to sing in a beautiful way, even if not all of them do when it comes to Verdi.” Bonynge gave the example of Bergonzi’s singing of the aria “Quando le sere al placido” from Luisa Miller, an opera he would like to conduct. 

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